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Western Press Review: Spy-Plane Drama, NTV Controversy

Prague, 6 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today continues to focus on the spy-plane drama between the United States and China, as diplomatic efforts are stepped up over the release of the U.S. EP3 surveillance plane and its 24-member crew. Other comments address this week's shakeup at Russia's only independent television network and the fear of growing U.S. isolationism in the wake of its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on controlling greenhouse gases.


In the "Wall Street Journal Europe," commentator Paul Gigot writes: "It may not look like it this week, but China's leaders are doing a favor for [U.S. President] George W. Bush. By playing chicken with a U.S. reconnaissance plane, they've made it easier for the president to build a new U.S. center-right policy consensus toward that emerging Asian power."

He adds: "Mr. Bush's China policy will be forged out of a debate on the right that's more complicated than the media suggest. There are really three conservative camps vying for China-policy primacy." The best, he suggests, is that of the "hard-line free-traders. [These] right-wingers want to be soft on trade to encourage Chinese openness, but tough on security to deter Chinese nationalism. [This] recognizes China for what it is, an authoritarian regime betting it can open itself and its economy to the world without opening its politics. [It's] also the best way for Mr. Bush to maintain a domestic political consensus."


An editorial in Britain's "Independent" says "the main reason this [U.S.-China] confrontation is so unsettling is that we are not sure who we are dealing with, beyond the almost universally shared belief that, given Russia's decay, Japan's enfeeblement, and the squabbling of Europe, the only conceivable contender in the rival superpower stakes is China. Alas, China is very difficult to read at the best of times."

The editorial continues: "[China] calls itself Communist, yet it has embraced enough of capitalism to become, in terms of purchasing-power parity, the world's second-largest economy. [With] $115 billion of annual trade with the U.S. alone, it is far more part of the world economy than the old Soviet Union ever was. Globalization can only hasten the process. Our guess is that the present crisis is less the start of a new cold war than a hiccup in the gradual, but inevitable, integration of China into the world system."


Commentator Thomas Friedman writes in "The New York Times": "U.S. interests would suffer from a prolonged crisis with China. But China would suffer just as much." He goes on: "The Chinese Communist Party has struck the following bargain with the Chinese people: You let us continue to rule, even though Communist ideology is no longer functional, and we will guarantee rising living standards. For the Communist leadership to fulfill its side of this bargain it needs a steady inflow of investment and technology to the U.S., and, even more important, it needs access to the U.S. market for China's exports." Friedman adds: "If China is seen as holding U.S. airmen hostage, the U.S. Congress will move to block everything from China's entry into the World Trade Organization to its trade privileges in the U.S. to its possible hosting of the 2008 Olympics."


A "Washington Post" editorial says the 24 U.S. airmen being held by China must be released "if this is to remain an incident and not a transformational crisis." It adds: "That may require more from China than it does from the United States. So far, though China has not matched its explosive reaction to the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two years ago, the behavior of President Jiang Zemin's government has dangerously trended toward belligerence and escalation."

In the end, the paper says, "if [China] proves able to move swiftly toward the release of the American crew members -- perhaps while continuing to investigate and negotiate over the causes and remedies of the air collision -- Mr. Jiang's government will demonstrate that cooperation remains possible. [If], however, it insists on turning the Americans it holds into de facto hostages, the Bush administration will have little recourse but to accept the demands of hard-liners in congress for a sharp downgrading in bilateral relations."


An editorial in Britain's "Times" daily says: "From the moment that China decided to detain the 24 members of the crew as well as the aircraft, President Bush had no choice but to treat this as a test of his mettle -- even as his great opportunity. [In] the short and medium term, Mr. Bush has the most at stake. He has wisely and deliberately avoided ultimatums. But unless the crew is released soon, Americans will see them as hostages, and hostages are bad news for any U.S. president, particularly one new to office and international experience."

It adds: "Mr. Bush must therefore secure the prompt release of the crew without capitulating to Chinese demands that the U.S. admit causing the accident or even appearing to do so. The plane, which will have little more than scrap value once China's military have finished with it, is a secondary issue."


"Whether or not China is ultimately to blame for the downing of the U.S. spy-plane," an editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" says, "it is set on extracting maximum advantage from the stand-off." But, it adds, "China's maneuvering over the aircraft owes more to shifting allegiances at home than to any tilt in U.S. foreign policy. [Chinese] foreign policy must be seen against a background of slow erosion of control by the communist leadership. Economic domination has been lost as state-owned companies are sold off or closed down. The party's arbitrary power is incompatible with the rule of law, a prerequisite for economic modernization."


In a commentary in the "Wall Street Journal Europe," Jamestown Foundation analyst Jonas Bernstein addresses what he calls the "almost tragic inevitability" of gas monopoly Gazprom's takeover earlier this week of Russia's only independent nationwide network, NTV. He writes: "While some observers have compared the NTV-Gazprom standoff to the rebellion at Czech state television earlier this year, there is no Vaclav Havel-like figure in the Russian government taking the journalists' side. Instead, President Vladimir Putin, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, and Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh, who has replaced [Media-MOST owner Vladimir] Gusinsky as NTV's board chairman, have clung tenaciously to the fiction that the dispute is strictly commercial, involving $300 million that Media-MOST owes the gas monopoly."

Bernstein continues: "Vladimir Gusinsky and NTV are in many ways unlikely martyrs in the cause of Russian press freedom. Mr. Gusinsky is a product and a beneficiary of the oligarchic system that emerged in the 1990s. And NTV, inadvertently or not, helped consolidate that system by allowing itself to become a tool for Kremlin propaganda during Boris Yeltsin's 1996 election campaign -- something Mr. Gusinsky now says he regrets. Nevertheless," he concludes, "NTV today is the only electronic media outlet with real national influence that is not subordinated to the state. A reversal of that status would be a giant step back towards Russia's Soviet past."


An editorial in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says: "Putin] tends to regard his domestic critics as enemies of the state. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his long battle with [Gusinsky] and his Media-MOST group. [The] image of efficiency that Mr. Putin projects should not blind the West to an authoritarian bent that would silence those skeptical of his achievements."

The editorial continues: "The journalists at NTV, who are bearing the brunt of the battle, deserve the full support of Western governments. It is to be hoped that the Spanish courts will refuse Russia's request for the extradition of Mr. Gusinsky, and that Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, will be able to buy a substantial part of the Russian oligarch's 49-percent stake in NTV. Investment by an experienced foreign media magnate would help to counterbalance Gazprom's influence."


Finally, Flora Lewis comments in the "International Herald Tribune" that "[Europe] is growing increasingly uneasy at signs that America is not particularly interested in what the rest of the world has to say." She says that Washington's rejection of the international Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases is just the "latest, sharpest shock" in U.S.-European relations, and adds: "There have been many other moments of doubt, stemming more from congressional than presidential action in recent years. They include trade arguments, refusal to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty and the anti-landmine treaty, and refusal to support an international criminal court."

Lewis writes further: "There is a desire [in Europe] to remain in close partnership with the United States, but with an America that also respects Europe's interests. [Despite] the familiar figures from previous Republican administrations, the new Bush team in Washington seems far away from and insensitive to European concerns. It is hard to tell whether they don't know or just don't care."